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Innovation as the Human Enterprise

Innovation was the overarching theme of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) 2012 in Tianjin this week. As a representative of a design and innovation firm and as a member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on Values, I was delighted to see that many panels and conversations approached innovation from a holistic perspective. That meant not contextualizing it solely as technological disruption or process optimization, but as a deeply humanistic endeavour that connects consumer and producer, along with other stakeholders (increasingly in hybrid roles), in a creative act. Innovation, after all, is a human enterprise.

When we talk about enablers of innovation, we essentially talk about enabling forces that help us to unleash our very humanity. Innovation brings us to life because it connects our vision, our ideas of a better future, with our enormous ingenuity and capacity for proactive change. More innovative business means more human business. The WEF Tech Pioneers and Social Entrepreneurs who were awarded in Tianjin, as well as the remarkable social technology start-up founders and employees I had met in Beijing just before the AMNC, all exemplified this spirit.

As several sessions looked at enablers of innovation, they examined what China can learn from Western-style innovation, but increasingly also what the Western world can learn from China (which, for example, is creating the world’s largest market for mobile learning).

One enabler of innovation, relevant worldwide, is a more effective link between academic research and business in order to overcome what William Green, chairman of Accenture, called the “Innovation Trap” in the session on smart growth and smart economies. While the benefits of knowledge arbitrage may have become obsolete in our hyper-connected world, silos still exist in our societies and organizations. To eliminate these silos, we need to fundamentally rethink human capital and put people at the center of our enterprises, not as employees that we cater to but as human beings whose desires we design for. Intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs need space to “make change” and shape their businesses’ agenda.

Another enabler is to promote cultures that honor failure as an integral part of learning and a prerequisite of entrepreneurship. A lively panel explored rewards for risk-taking and how to increase tolerance for “fast failing.”

Moreover, innovation is the answer to the urgent need for sustainable consumption. Propelled by digital technologies, new business models such as Collaborative Consumption materialize the idea of a “circular economy,” appreciating social interaction, reputational capital, and meaningful experience over conspicuous consumption and its focus on the possession of instantly gratifying, status-granting material goods. In this context, it made perfect sense that a session on Sustainable Consumption identified Chinese millenials, with their widespread adoption of social media and their growing quest for values such as meaning and happiness, as a key demographic that has the power to shift consumer behavior at large scale.

To enable these new forms of collaboration, both in innovation and sustainable consumption, high levels of trust are paramount. This idea brings us back to the themes of human behavior. It was great to see that the AMNC program was rich with sessions on art, culture, and spirituality—sessions that looked beyond the larger contexts of private and public sectors, and at the individual. What motivates us? How do we learn? What makes us happy? What are our human rights in the digital age? How much of our lives do we want to share? How does Big Data influence our decisions? Only if we better understand our personal behaviors and simultaneously cultivate our shared values, can we create trusted environments that foster creativity, community, and collaboration – three keys to improving the state of the world.

This post was first published on the WEF Forum:Blog.

Picture: Tianjin Museum via Every China

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.